The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is ready to tackle the “Tricky Triangle.” After arriving mid-week at the Pocono Raceway, the field has been set for the 33rd annual Pocono 400.
Denny Hamlin broke Joey Logano’s track record which was set in 2012 by flying around the Pocono Raceway at a blistering 181.415 mph. Hamlin is searching for his first top-10 at a track 1.5 miles long or larger. Even though he has a win at Talladega this year, Hamlin has struggled on the larger circuits, and is looking for some form of consistency after winning his second pole award of the year. Hamlin has won four previous races at Pocono, including his first pair of victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series back in 2006 where he won from the pole in both events.
Jimmie Johnson is coming off of back-to-back wins at Charlotte and Dover – both of which he dominated. After winning the Pocono 400 in 2013, Johnson has set his sights high for Sunday’s event. However, Johnson will have to come from mid-pack to contend for the win as he will be starting 20th in the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson was eighth in the second practice session of the weekend and recorded the third fastest time during Happy Hour. Could Johnson win his fourth Pocono race this weekend?
Jeff Gordon comes into Pocono as the all-time wins leader at the track. Gordon was runner-up to his teammate, Kasey Kahne, in last year’s August Pocono event. However, Gordon is coming off a disastrous race at Dover where he was contending for a top-five position, but fell back approximately 10 spots within the final handful of laps.
Speaking of Kahne – he has been struggling with the handling of the No. 5 Chevrolet this weekend. He was 17th in the second practice and 14th in final practice. Although it is not horrific, compared to his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, he is struggling.
Brian Vickers has been fast all weekend. The No. 55 Toyota led the first practice session of the weekend, and was fastest in the first round of qualifying before falling to ninth in the final session. Vickers has not raced at Pocono since 2011 – making this race his first at the track since it was repaved. Entering Pocono, Vickers is 13th in the points standings in his return to full-time racing at NASCAR’s highest level.
Kevin Harvick was quickest in both of Saturday’s practice sessions, but his No. 4 team had to change their transmission. Harvick will not have to go to the rear of the field as NASCAR enables teams to change transmissions. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also had to have a transmission swapped before Happy Hour in the No. 88 Chevrolet. Aric Almirola also had a transmission issue after initially believing the engine had gone out on the No. 43 Ford. NASCAR enables teams to change transmissions at Pocono as well as the pair of road courses.
Mike Bliss is on standby for David Ragan whose wife is pregnant. Alex Kennedy spun out during practice on Saturday, but did not hit anything.
The Pocono Raceway also opened up the apron by the apex in Turn 2 - the tunnel turn. Though not many drivers have attempted to drive down on the apron, Landon Cassill showed Speedway Digest what it would be like to drive into that area during a pace car ride on Sunday morning. The Chevrolet pace car immediately shot up the track and was extremely loose, and that was after going 115-130 mph. Cassill believes late in the race, someone might try to go down there, but he doesn't see many drivers taking that risk considering it is so rough on that part of the track.
Denny Hamlin has won his second pole of the year as he set the pace during the final round of qualifying at the Pocono Raceway for the Pocono 400. Hamlin’s speed of 181.415 mph was barely able to edge out Kurt Busch as he now has 19 career poles in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His lap was also quick enough to abolish the old track record set by Joey Logano in 2012.
This is the first time Hamlin has sat on the pole at Pocono since 2006. In 2014, Hamlin has now qualified on the front row three times, and finished sixth after sitting on the pole at Bristol, but led just four laps during that event.
“We were definitely not a pole winning car after practice, and even after the first round. It all worked out for us for a pole run,” Hamlin said.
Logano will start seventh in the No. 22 Ford after the Fords were seemingly not strong during practice. However, Logano believe his Team Penske car is going to be fast enough to contend for the victory.
“I don’t think we were struggling. I think we were trying things to get the setup where we wanted it to be. When you come to the race track for the first time with a new rules package, there are a lot of big differences to get used to,” Logano said after qualifying.
Brian Vickers paced the majority of Friday’s lone practice session, and was fastest in the first round of qualifying. However, Vickers dropped to fourth in the second round, and evidently will start ninth in the No. 55 Toyota.
“We got a little too tight. I’m not sure why. I guess we have to go back and figure it out,” Vickers said.
After winning back-to-back races, Jimmie Johnson will start 20th in the No. 48 Chevrolet as he made two attempts in the second round of qualifying, but could not break into the top-12.
“The driver blew Turn 2. I just got too greedy down in two and lost the nose in corner exit,” Johnson said.
Here are some notables from qualifying:
-Matt Kenseth missed the cut to move to the second round as he will start 26th on Sunday. Kenseth struggled in both Pocono races last year, and is coming off of back-to-back top-fives.
-Kasey Kahne also missed the top-24 for the third time this season. Kahne will start 27th in the No. 5 car after putting the 20th quickest time up in Friday’s practice.
-Austin Dillon made it to the final round of qualifying for just the third time this season.
-Alex Kennedy will start 42nd in his first start of 2014.
-Dave Blaney spun out in Turn 1 during his qualifying lap. Blaney was not able to complete a lap, but will start at the tail end of the field since only 43 cars are entered in the race.
Redemption works in crazy ways. Denny Hamlin has had some bad luck over the past year or so. However, Hamlin is victorious for the first time in 2014, and in doing so - won in his 300th career start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Hamlin won his 24th career race on Sunday afternoon as he held off a hard charging Greg Biffle before a caution came out on the backstretch to end the race. Winning the Aaron's 499 at Talladega marks the first points paying race which Hamlin has won at a restrictor plate track. Biffle led a race-high 54 laps, which is more than he has led throughout the season after eight races. The win marks the third victory for Joe Gibbs Racing at Talladega in Sprint Cup Series competition. Elliott Sadler, a Joe Gibbs Racing driver, won Saturday's Nationwide Series event - giving the organization a weekend sweep.
After starting the Aaron's 499 in 2013, Hamlin was forced to remove himself from the car due to his back injury. Now, Hamlin is in victory lane, and was quite emotional after having to miss the race at Auto Club Speedway several weeks ago.
"We really just want to win race, regardless of the implications that this means for the Chase," Hamlin said in victory lane.
The caution came out as the field was in the middle of the backstretch on the final wreck. Cole Whitt, who was involved in several incidents on the day, got into Justin Allgaier. Allgaier's No. 51 Chevrolet slammed into the wall right by the finish line. However, NASCAR kept the green flag out. Biffle was debating whether or not to make a move to pass Hamlin, but wanted to wait until the field was back on the frontstretch. However, the spin occurred in the tri-oval, several yards before the leaders took the white flag.
"I didn't have any teammates out there. I was going to try to pass him going into the tri-oval," said Biffle after the race. "I was backing up to get a run on him on the backstretch, but then the caution came out."
After the race, fans were outraged on social media about the caution which concluded the race. However, a large piece of fiberglass-like material from Allgaier's car was sitting right in the middle of the track by the finish line. If NASCAR would have enabled the cars to keep going, most of the field would have ran that piece of debris over, possibly causing it to fly into the grandstands. Some people believe that the cars could have just gone around it, but if the leaders were to go three-wide, it would have been extremely difficult to miss a piece of debris that could have put people in danger. Moreover, this will make NASCAR look at their policy on green-white-checkered finishes as the ARCA Series has adapted the same mentality as NASCAR, but enables the possibilities of having yellow flags after the white flag.
There were several major wrecks during the Aaron's 499 which featured 23 different leaders with 48 lead changes. Brad Keselowski was battling Danica Patrick for the lead early in the event when he went down to clear Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet at the end of the front stretch, but was not clear of Patrick. Patrick went up the race track a drop, and Keselowski continued to go down. Keselowski spun out, then went below the apron, and he went back up the race track. Keselowski had overheating problems, putting him eight laps down at one point.
However, that was not the last incident the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was involved in.
Keselowski was racing in the midst of the pack where he got loose, collecting multiple cars including Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. It is arguable that Keselowski should not have been racing in the pack since he was multiple laps down. However, he was racing for the lucky dog, and had to stay ahead of Jamie McMurray, who sustained damage during Keselowski's spin, to do so. Throughout the race, McMurray had six lucky dog awards - putting him just one lap down at the finish.
Jimmie Johnson had an up and down day in his No. 48 Chevrolet. However, the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion did not have the day he wanted. Johnson had an incident similar to that of Keselowski's. He was in the midst of the pack when his car just got slightly loose, collecting Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell and last year's winner of the Aaron's 499, David Ragan. Even with the spin, Johnson had the least amount of damage of those which were involved in the accident.
A.J. Allmendinger collected his second straight top-five finish for JTG Daugherty Racing. Allmendinger was running inside the top-10 for the majority of the race. Kyle Larson was the highest finishing Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate. Larson unofficially finished ninth in the No. 42 car as he stayed in the back of the pack for most of the race until late in the going. Landon Cassill had an impressive run in the No. 40 car for Hillman Racing. Cassill finished a career-best 11th after running well throughout the race.
27 cars were able to finish the race on the lead lap.
Josh Wise, in a car sponsored by Reddit.com users, was running towards the front of the field late in the race, but ended up finishing the day in 20th for Phil Parsons Racing. Patrick was able to lead six laps early, but experienced some power issues during the race - causing her to finish 22nd. Pole sitter, Brian Scott, finished the day in the 42nd position after getting caught up in the Keselowski wreck.
Here are some other notables:
-Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 26 laps. However, Earnhardt Jr. finished 26th after struggling late in the race.
-Cole Whitt finished 21st after being involved in several wrecks in his second race for BK Racin
- Terry Labonte finished 24th in the No. 32 car for GO Fas Racing. Labonte will be returning to competition for only two more races (Daytona in July and Talladega in October).
-Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had his fourth top-10 finish of the season.
-Michael Waltrip finished 25th in the No. 66 Toyota. Waltrip was hanging towards the back of the pack for the majority of the race, but could not gain many positions late in the event.
-Jeff Gordon has a three point lead over Matt Kenseth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.
-There are now eight drivers which are seemingly locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup as long as they attempt to qualify/race each event and are inside the top-30 in points.
1)11 Denny Hamlin FedEx Express Toyota 188 laps
2)16 Greg Biffle 3M Window Film Ford 188 laps
3) 15 Clint Bowyer PEAK Antifreeze/Motor Oil Toyota 188 laps
4) 55 Brian Vickers Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota 188 laps
5) 47 AJ Allmendinger Bush's Beans Chevrolet 188 laps
6) 27 Paul Menard Richmond/Menards Chevrolet 188 laps
7) 4 Kevin Harvick Jimmy John's Chevrolet 188 laps
8) 5 Kasey Kahne FrmrsInsrnce/Thankamillionteachers.com Chevrolet 188 laps
9)42 Kyle Larson # Target Chevrolet 188 laps
10) 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr Zest Ford 188 laps
11) 40 Landon Cassill(i) Hillman Racing Chevrolet 188 laps
12)18 Kyle Busch M&M's Pretzel Toyota 188 laps
13) 43 Aric Almirola Logan's Roadhouse/Gwaltney Ford 188 laps
14) 13 Casey Mears GEICO Chevrolet 188 laps
15) 3 Austin Dillon # Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet 188 laps
16) 7 Michael Annett # Pilot/Flying J Chevrolet 188 laps
17) 78 Martin Truex Jr Furniture Row Chevrolet 188 laps
18) 31 Ryan Newman Caterpillar Chevrolet 188 laps
19) 9 Marcos Ambrose DeWalt Ford 188 laps
20) 98 Josh Wise Dogecoin/Reddit.com Ford 188 laps
21) 26 Cole Whitt # Scorpyd Crossbows Toyota 188 laps
22) 10 Danica Patrick GoDaddy Chevrolet 188 laps
23)48 Jimmie Johnson Lowe's/Valspar Reserve Chevrolet 188 laps
24) 32 Terry Labonte C&J Energy Services Ford 188 laps
25) 66 Michael Waltrip Blue/DEF Toyota 188 laps
26) 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr National Guard Chevrolet 188 laps
27) 51 Justin Allgaier # Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet 188 laps
28) 23 Alex Bowman # Dr.Pepper Toyota 187 laps Accident
29) 1 Jamie McMurray McDonald's Chevrolet 187 laps
30) 99 Carl Edwards Fastenal Ford 182 laps Accident
31) 83 Ryan Truex # VooDoo BBQ & Grill Toyota 182 laps Accident
32) 22 Joey Logano Shell Pennzoil Ford 174 laps Accident
33) 41 Kurt Busch Haas Automation Chevrolet 174 laps Accident
34) 36 Reed Sorenson Golden Corral Chevrolet 174 laps Accident
35) 34 David Ragan KFC Go Cup Ford 174 laps Accident
36) 95 Michael McDowell Jordan Truck Sales Ford 174 laps Accident
37) 20 Matt Kenseth Dollar General Toyota 171 laps Running
38) 2 Brad Keselowski Miller Lite Ford 160 laps Running
39) 24 Jeff Gordon Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet 156 laps Running
40) 38 David Gilliland Love's Travel Stop Ford 150 laps Engine
41) 21 Trevor Bayne(i) Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford 136 laps Accident
42) 33 Brian Scott(i) Shore Lodge Chevrolet 136 laps Accident
43) 14 Tony Stewart Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet 136 laps Accident